On estimated reading time

The estimated time you should take to read this 712 word post is three-and-a-half minutes. If it takes you less time than that then, well done, you have a quicker reading time than the average of 200 words per minute. If it takes you longer then, I'm afraid to report, you must be a little dim.

I realise I'm being somewhat unfair. I know that the 'estimated reading time' widgets that seem increasingly prevalent on blogs and reading apps are not intended to make us feel clever or stupid. Clearly the idea is to help us assess whether we have time to read the piece, a friendly little device to indicate whether we should read now or bookmark.

So I've been trying to work out why the words 'estimated reading time' make me so bloody angry. Why my reaction on encountering them is quite so visceral and intemperate.

Respect for the reader

It's partly, I think, because as I note above, one immediately feels under pressure to get the thing read within the suggested timeframe. I know it's just an estimate, but it feels prescriptive.

We all know from experience that people read in radically different ways, at very different speeds. The 'estimated time' note assumes that we'll read through the piece in a linear fashion, starting at the top and processing a certain number of words every ten seconds or so.

Well, when I open a blog post I'll look at the title, scroll to the bottom, perhaps read a comment or two before I've read the post, then scroll up and look at any pictures, read maybe a couple of paragraphs at random places, then perhaps scroll to the bottom again and read the final paragraph. Then, and only then, will I scroll to the top and start reading in a 'normal' fashion. Sometimes I'll even start from the bottom and read upwards. All that sounds very odd, but that's how I do it, and I'm sure others do strange things as well. If I'm interested in the post I'll be a very slow reader, reading each sentence two or three times.

And despite all that I suppose I still count as a 'normal' reader: I'm fortunate in having no reading disabilities and, as an English speaker, in being able to read a lot of web content in my first language. I wonder how people with disabilities and international readers feel about 'estimated times'.

So there's the issue of respect for the reader: don't assume we will all read the post in the same way, and have the same reading capability.

Respect for the writer

There's also the issue of respect for the writer. Putting a 'estimated time' label by the piece attempts to quantify the item's worth in terms of the amount of time it takes to read. The subliminal message is: 'I know you are a terribly busy person and I'm awfully grateful you've condescended to patronise my little blog so I promise that it will only take five minutes of your precious time to read this before you can go on your way again and resume your productive life.'

As you'll have gathered I'm not keen on that simpering abasement to the philistine 'time-is-money-just-tell-me-what-I-need-to-know' attitude. Writers deserve more respect than that. The reader should trust the writer regarding the appropriate length of the piece, which should be as long as need be: 200 or 2000 words.

When I read something I consider worthwhile I don't find myself wishing it were a bit shorter or longer: the attentive reader is fully engaged by the words and the experience is absorbing, seamless. A good writer persuades me that it's my fault that when my attention slips: it's up to me to make the effort to be alert to and follow the intricacies of the narrative. Can you imagine a novelist prefacing their book with a note informing us that 'This will take approximate five days to read.' I know the comparison is a little extreme but the principle is exactly the same. If I visit someone's blog I will make my own assessment as to whether I want to read it, and, if so, will submit to the writer's judgement regarding the length of the post.

That's it, I'm finished. Sorry: if you're normal that's three-and-a-half minutes of your life you won't get back.

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